FFA in secret Jets talks with Lake businessman

FOOTBALL Federation Australia chief executive Ben Buckley and A-League boss Lyall Gorman were in Newcastle last night for secret talks with Lake Macquarie businessman Andrew Poole.

The move was the first step towards ensuring the Jets survival if a resolution with the Hunter Sports Group cannot be negotiated.

The Jets have been in limbo since the Nathan Tinkler-owned HSG announced a fortnight ago that it intended to relinquish the license, citing irreconcilable differences with FFA. HSG reaffirmed its stance on Friday.

FFA insisted yesterday they did not accept the decision by HSG to hand back the licence two years into a 10-year agreement and remained hopeful of a resolution.

HSG has paid the players and coaching staff until April 30, which looms as a deadline for negotiations between the warring parties. But with no common ground in sight, the governing body has started exploring other ownership options with a community-based model the preference.

When contacted last night Poole told the Herald he had no interest in becoming a lone benefactor of the Jets and was adamant the club needed to be owned by the community. But it is understood that he would be happy to be involved.

‘‘The FFA know my views on private ownership versus member ownership teams,’’ Poole said. ‘‘They have taken that on board but at the moment as far as I know the licence is with HSG.’’

Poole proposed a community model, in which he and two anonymous Newcastle businessmen guaranteed donations of $1.5 million for four years, as an alternative to privatisation when Tinkler took over the Knights rugby league club last year.

Buckley and Gorman flew from Brisbane, where they watched the Roar beat Perth Glory in a controversial grand final, to Newcastle yesterday.

FFA confirmed the visit but would not give details.

‘‘The fact that CEO Ben Buckley and head of A-League Lyall Gorman flew directly from Brisbane to Newcastle shows the priority we give this issue,’’ FFA head of corporate affairs and communication Kyle Patterson said. ‘‘Today’s talks were about exploring next season and Newcastle’s representation in the Hyundai A-League.

‘‘It is still a very open discussion about what form that takes.

‘‘We want to stress that the primary objective is to have Hunter Sports Group continue its participation.’’

HSG chief executive Troy Palmer said FFA had not notified them of the visit by the hierarchy.

‘‘We find it surprising that if Ben Buckley was in town that he would not have contacted us,’’ Palmer said.

‘‘If he had made contact, of course, we would have sat down with him for a coffee.’’

However, Palmer also confirmed that their stance had not changed since Friday.

The heart of the matter is the $3.5million acquisition fee Tinkler paid FFA when he took over the the licence 19 months ago.

Such is the acrimony between Palmer and FFA management, it appears the only chance of compromise is through an independent mediator or for Tinkler and FFA chairman Frank Lowy get together.

‘‘Frank Lowy, Ben Buckley and any of the board of FFA would be happy to sit down with Nathan Tinkler,’’ Patterson said.

‘‘We are happy to find a negotiated way forward.

‘‘The good of football in the Hunter Valley has to be front and centre of everyone’s thinking.

‘‘While there is a business dispute at the heart of this, there is a game with 60,000 registered participants at stake.

‘‘That has to be the focus of people’s minds.’’

If an agreement with HSG is not found, the matter is likely to head to court, where FFA are expected to sue Tinkler for at least $50 million in damages.

In the meantime, FFA are mindful that they need to make a public signal to the players that they have some confidence to stay together.

More than 1500 Jets fans attended a rally at Hunter Stadium on Friday night.

Jets fan Toby Mills has put forward a proposal for a supporters trust that would involve them buying shares in the club and having a say in how the it is run.

The trust would rely on outside funding to take the majority share of club ownership.

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